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Rough Sleeping

Volume 672: debated on Thursday 27 February 2020

With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to update the House on the latest rough sleeping annual statistics for 2019, published today, and the Government’s new approach.

I think we can all agree that it is a moral shame that we see so many people sleeping rough on our streets. We are determined to end the blight of rough sleeping and have placed this great social ill at the heart of the moral mission of the Government. Today’s figures are encouraging. They show that for a second year in a row the number of people sleeping rough has fallen. Across England, the numbers have fallen by 9%, building on last year’s reduction which was the first fall in eight years. Areas funded by the Government’s rough sleeping initiative saw a 12% decrease. Manchester is down 26%; Camden down 54%; Birmingham down 43%; and Enfield down 69%. Cornwall is down 55%; Hastings down 56%; the City of London is down 39%; Swale down 69%; Bedford down 41%; and Tameside is down by 86%. London saw a decrease of 11%. That is the first decrease in the number of rough sleepers in London for six years and the largest decrease since 2010. That, as colleagues who represent London constituencies will know, comes despite the very considerable and specific challenges faced in the capital, including, as the figures show, the fact that 42% of those sleeping rough in the city, and quite possibly more than that, are non-UK nationals.

Those figures confirm what I have seen since I became Housing Secretary in the summer: dedicated and targeted support, backed by significant levels of Government support, is getting vulnerable people off the streets and into safe accommodation where they can begin to turn their lives around. The Government’s strategy is working. I would like to pay tribute to the hard work of charities, service providers, local authorities and many, many volunteers backed by Government funding across the country, who are working tirelessly to give rough sleepers the support they need to help them off the streets, and to begin the long and complex process of turning their lives around. That does not mean our work ends here. We are perhaps coming up out of the valley, but we are very far from the mountain top.

This Conservative Government have made it an overriding priority to end rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament. There is a great deal more to do and we must be honest with ourselves about the scale of the challenge and tackle it head-on with renewed vigour. That is why I am pleased that the Prime Minister and I are today announcing that Dame Louise Casey will lead a review of rough sleeping. This work will consider the links between 24-hour street activity and rough sleeping, particularly physical and mental health issues, and provide advice to me and to the Prime Minister on how we can best use the levers of central and local government to support this group and continue to reduce rough sleeping across the country. I know that Dame Louise’s vast experience, rigour and candour, and the fact that she has worked across party for many years, mean that she is the right person to look at what is needed and help to get the job done. I want to support Dame Louise to move at a pace commensurate with the seriousness and urgency of the action we must take now.

Meanwhile, we will continue to build on our successful rough sleeping strategy, guided by the best evidence, intervening rapidly where people are sleeping on the streets, and supporting people’s recovery to ensure that they never have to sleep rough again. Putting this ambition into practice, the Government have today announced £236 million of new money for move-on accommodation, safely supporting up to an additional 6,000 rough sleepers, and those at immediate risk of rough sleeping, off the streets into the safe and secure accommodation they deserve, with support wrapped around them. This is on top of the £437 million that the Government have provided to tackle homelessness and rough sleeping in the next financial year, including more than £112 million to fund services through the rough sleeping initiative. This funding will be used by councils to provide up to 6,000 beds and 2,500 support staff over the next year, so the number of beds will be increasing very rapidly.

We recognise that there are particular challenges in responding to the increase in European economic area national rough sleepers, and hon. Members may recall that as part of the cold weather fund, the Government took the unprecedented decision to extend limited powers to the most affected local authorities to support certain EEA nationals sleeping rough for a limited period. That approach has been successful, with over 400 EEA nationals accommodated in November and December last year, and many of them supported into work or to return home. The Government have today taken the decision to continue some of those services until 31 December 2020, when the transition period ends and the new immigration system will be in place. I will work closely with the Home Secretary on how we address those challenges at the end of the transition period.

While prevention, outreach and emergency support are of course vital, we need secure, sustainable accommodation to end rough sleeping for good, and increasing the provision of affordable housing is fundamental to making that happen. This Government have delivered nearly half a million new, affordable homes. We have also abolished the council borrowing cap, so that local authorities are able to build up to 10,000 more social homes a year, and many are doing that.

We cannot and will not let that momentum slip. That is why we have already committed to 250,000 new affordable homes by March 2022 through the affordable homes programme, backed by £9 billion. We are increasing the supply of social housing and we will ensure that rough sleepers, and those at risk of rough sleeping, are provided with homes that are available long term and are appropriate to their needs. We simply must build more homes as a country and I will be doing all I can to ensure that that happens.

However, boosting housing supply is just one of many long-term measures that we must take to properly and permanently address homelessness and rough sleeping. We have to redouble our efforts to tackle the underlying problems that have led many people to fall into a life on the streets. Last year, four in 10 of the rough sleeping population in London were suffering from a severe drug dependency and the same proportion were suffering from alcohol dependency. Half of all rough sleepers were assessed as having a mental health support need, and, shockingly, data from 2017 indicates that eight in 10 rough sleepers who have died in London suffered from severe mental health conditions. We cannot allow this injustice to continue. We are stepping up our work to provide specialist help and support for those suffering from mental ill health, and that is backed by £30 million of additional funding from NHS England.

On top of that, we are working to implement test models of community-based provision across six projects that are designed to enable access to health and support services for people who are sleeping rough with both mental ill health and substance dependency needs. Rough sleeping is as much a health challenge as a housing one and our work will reflect that. We also need a concerted effort to bring the different support services together—from outreach to housing, health, policing and immigration—so that we can effectively tackle the multiple issues that lead to individuals finding themselves homeless.

We are acutely aware of the scale of the challenge before us. Ending rough sleeping within this Parliament is one of the most ambitious targets set by any Government since the publication of the Beveridge report and the creation of the welfare state. We accept this challenge as a moral mission and obligation that we cannot pass up. Many of the underlying causes of rough sleeping that I have spoken about are deep-rooted, built up over successive generations and successive Governments. I hope that Members across the House will support us in this collective endeavour and help us, as a country, to achieve this simple but profoundly important objective: to bring rough sleeping to an end once and for all.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. Rough sleeping is not inevitable in a country as decent and well off as ours. The cost of a decade of austerity has been over 700 deaths last year on our streets and huge numbers of children and families in bed-and-breakfast and temporary accommodation. It is the defining mark of this Conservative Government. Any improvement on that record is welcome, but today’s figures show that the number of people sleeping rough in shop doorways and on park benches is more than double what it was when Labour left government. That shames us all and it shames Conservative Ministers most of all. It must end.

Today’s figures come with a big health warning: everyone, from the Secretary of State to homelessness charities, knows that these statistics are an unreliable undercount of the true scale of the problem. The figures have been refused national statistics status—a mark of

“trustworthiness, quality and public value”

Yesterday, Labour’s shadow Housing Secretary, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), wrote to the UK Statistics Authority to ask it to investigate their accuracy.

That follows new data obtained by the BBC under the Freedom of Information Act, showing that Ministers have been dramatically under-reporting the scale of rough sleeping. The BBC revealed that 25,000 people are sleeping rough in England—five times the number recorded by the Government’s statistics. Even on today’s unreliable figures, the Government are set to break their pledge to end rough sleeping by the end of the Parliament. At the current rate of progress, they will not end rough sleeping until 2037, so while the Secretary of State’s ambitious words are welcome, how does he intend to reach his target without further investment?

The announcement today that the Government will go some way towards following Labour’s proposals and fund housing for rough sleepers following the Housing First model is welcome, but we remember that the Secretary of State’s party promised 200,000 starter homes and did not build a single one. When the Prime Minster was Mayor of London, he promised to end rough sleeping in the capital by 2012, but rough sleeping doubled. We are right to be sceptical and ask the Secretary of State to clarify: by what date will these homes will be made available? How will the locations be determined? And is the funding genuinely extra, as he claims, or has it been diverted from other programmes in the Department’s budget?

It is not just that the Government have turned a blind eye to the homelessness crisis for so long—which they have—but they have refused to face up to the fact that they actively created the crisis. They have cut £1 billion a year from local homelessness reduction budgets and there is no commitment to reverse that. They have cut investment in new homes for social rent to record levels, with no commitment to reverse that, and they have failed to deliver on their pledge to end unfair evictions—the leading cause of homelessness.

Much like other symptoms of the housing crisis, such as the spiralling housing benefit bill, the funding needed to tackle rough sleeping will continue to rise if we do not invest in addressing the root causes of the housing crisis. That means more than warm words about bringing health and housing together; it means facing up to the impact of deep cuts to welfare, mental health support and addiction services since 2010. However, the Government are in denial about the root causes of homelessness. Perhaps that is why the Housing Secretary chose to appoint someone as his Parliamentary Private Secretary, with specific responsibility for rough sleeping, who thinks that sleeping rough is a lifestyle choice and who claimed that

“many people choose to be on the street”—[Official Report, 29 January 2020; Vol. 670, c. 858.]

He also claimed that it is more comfortable than going on exercise in the Army— [Interruption.]

That is particularly insulting to the hundreds of our armed forces veterans who are sleeping rough, who this Government have abandoned despite their years of service to our country.

As the first snow of the new decade falls on our streets outside, we must face up to the human cost of this Conservative Government: two people a day are dying on our streets; 127,000 children are homeless in temporary accommodation; and the rough sleeping figures are five times higher than the official statistics. Homelessness was tackled by the last Labour Government when we inherited a similar scale of crisis. We reduced rough sleeping by three quarters. The Secretary of State’s announcements today will not go far enough to deliver on his targets. To quote Louise Casey:

“We have gone from a beacon of success to an international example of failure”,

and we

“must not allow this issue to be ignored, we must feel its impact and act as the country we are proud to be.”

I accept the hon. Lady’s comments and say with all sincerity and humility that we must do more as a country to tackle rough sleeping. That is exactly what this new Conservative Administration intend to do. The Prime Minister and I have put this at the heart of our agenda, and we intend to deliver on the promises we have made today.

The hon. Lady asks me about the statistics, but I think she is misinformed. The statistics published today are not the Government’s statistics. They are statistics produced by a rigorous count conducted by local authorities, with independent verification; they are then compiled independently by Homeless Link, which is the umbrella organisation for some of the most respected homelessness charities in this country, including Shelter, Crisis and St Mungo’s. The methodology, which has been used for 10 years, is broadly the same as that used in most developed countries, including Canada and Japan; it is highly respected and it is vastly superior to the methodology used under the last Labour Government, when the current shadow Secretary of State for Housing, the right hon. Member for Wentworth and Dearne (John Healey), was this country’s Housing Minister. That methodology was deeply flawed. It asked local authorities to count only if, in their opinion, there were more than 10 rough sleepers in their area. As a result, there was no count in vast parts of the country. The statistics published today are robust and a huge improvement on those that came before them.

The hon. Lady asks about the rough sleeping initiative and the funding we have put in. In fact, the increases are significant. RSI funding has gone up by 30% this year. We are spending £400 million in the next financial year, and the announcement made today is of an additional £236 million—and yes, it is new money.

The hon. Lady spoke about housing more generally. I have to say that last year we built more homes in this country than we have in any year of the last 30. On average, we are building more affordable homes every year than the last Labour Government built, and more council houses were built last year than in the 13 years of Labour Government. Where does Labour have control? In Wales. How many council houses were built in Wales last year? Fifty-seven. How many were built the year before? Eighty. How many in each of the three years before that? Zero, zero and zero. What is the No. 1 challenge facing the Government in achieving our housing targets? The failing Labour Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.

The hon. Lady asks about our commitment to a fairer deal between tenants and landlords. In the Queen’s Speech, we said we would introduce a renter’s rights Bill, which will be a significant piece of legislation. We are in the process of drafting that Bill, which will absolutely bring an end to section 21.

Finally, the hon. Lady made some disparaging remarks about my hon. Friend the Member for Gravesham (Adam Holloway). I point out politely that in the past few years, he has spent over five months sleeping rough on the streets of London, Birmingham and New York city. I may be mistaken, but I do not think the hon. Lady has done that. I do not think any other Member of this House has spent so much time with members of our homeless population. I know for a fact that he has members of staff in his office in this House whom he has mentored off the streets and into a better life. Sometimes, he asks unacceptable questions, as George Orwell would put it, but we have to ask unacceptable questions sometimes if we as politicians genuinely want to tackle the big questions of our age. To tackle rough sleeping, we have to tackle addiction.

I commend my right hon. Friend on his commitment and the additional investment by the Government, which is starting to bear fruit, although there is still much to say. I welcome in particular his recognition that solving homelessness is not just about sustainable income; it is about dealing with the underlying problems of those who find themselves on the street. To that end, may I invite my hon. Friend to come to Worthing to see a really innovative scheme—a partnership between Turning Tides, a homeless charity, Worthing Borough Council and a developer, Roffey Homes? It has made available a nurses’ home, which will be developed after five years. There, rough sleepers are given not just accommodation, but support from mental health services and the benefits office, and help with sustainable living. Because of that, the number of overnight rough sleepers, which had been in the 30s, was down to seven at the last count. That is the sort of innovation and partnership we want. I hope my right hon. Friend will come to see the project and make sure the example is spread throughout the country.

I would be delighted to visit my hon. Friend’s constituency. At the heart of our new strategy is bringing together a co-ordinated approach in central Government. Dame Louise Casey and I will work to ensure that all of us—the Department of Health, the Department for Work and Pensions and the Home Office—work together as a team to deliver our commitment. We already see that work in local communities by some brilliant charities. For example, St Mungo’s takes mobile hubs to rough sleeping hotspots to bring all the services together. That is the surest way to tackle the challenge.

I am grateful to the Minister for advance sight of his statement. I agree that it is a moral scandal that we have rough sleeping in this day and age, and I wish him every success with his strategy to tackle rough sleeping by the end of this Parliament.

I have a few points to make. First, in the four years to 2019, the Scottish Government delivered five times more social rented properties per head of population than the Westminster Government. Progress out of poverty is thereby made more likely. Poverty rates are lower in Scotland owing to the existence of affordable housing. Earlier this month, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation reported that

“for someone with the same life circumstances such as qualifications, wage and family type, progress out of poverty is more likely if they live in Scotland or Northern Ireland than the rest of the UK.”

The JRF also attributes lower poverty rates in Scotland than in England and Wales to

“lower rents in the social housing sector as well as Scotland having a higher proportion of social rented properties”.

I have a couple of questions. Will the Government’s review of their homelessness strategy look at what is being done in other countries, including Scotland? Will they follow the Scottish Government’s lead in building genuinely affordable housing?

I am grateful the hon. Gentleman for those comments. We will certainly and happily look at the experience in Scotland and other parts of the Union, as we do at international examples. One of the purposes of bringing in someone as respected as Dame Louise Casey, who not only has a great deal of experience within the UK but is an internationally respected figure, is to learn from other parts of the world. I believe we are already doing that. Our Housing First pilot is learning from what happens in Finland and the United States and we have seen tremendous progress—success rates up to 90% in some areas. First is the simple aim of getting people into accommodation; then there is provision of sophisticated, long-term, wrap-around support. We are keen to learn from best practice all over the world.

Will the independent review by Dame Louise Casey engage with the many excellent charities across the country, such as St Mungo’s and Crisis, as well as Guildford Action, which is a local centre of excellence in my constituency helping those who are homeless and sleeping rough?

It certainly will. As I said, there are many fantastic organisations across the country. It has been my pleasure to visit many of them in my brief tenure as Housing Secretary. I went with the Prime Minister this morning to visit the Connection by St Martin in the Fields, where I met staff and clients involved with the work there. I pay tribute to them and to other organisations across the country. We want to learn from them and ensure that we build on their work.

I welcome the ambition the Secretary of State has set out. As he knows, a service at St Paul’s cathedral two weeks ago, in which my right hon. Friend the shadow Secretary of State took part, celebrated the work of the church-based homelessness night shelters in London. There is now at least one in every London borough, each involving seven or sometimes 14 places of worship. They spare thousands from sleeping rough in London during the winter. Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in commending the work of those many volunteers, but also agree with the preacher at that service, the Bishop of Edmonton, who said that volunteers should not really have to take this work on?

I was sorry not to be able to join the right hon. Gentleman at that service. I intended to be there, but a commitment arose in the House. I absolutely pay tribute to volunteers across the country and the very important work done by churches and other faith organisations, which I think we all know about from our constituencies, but which is particularly prevalent in London. Of course there is a role for the state. I hope he can see from my commitment and that of the Prime Minister today that we intend to put in the resources, but this is also a moral issue for all of us as a country. I think we should see great organisations and volunteers, praise them, and encourage them to continue their good work.

I commend my right hon. Friend for his statement and for the work that he is doing to end rough sleeping for good, but rough sleeping is clearly the tip of the iceberg—the visible sign of homelessness. It is estimated that more than 300,000 people in the country are homeless on any one day, and to achieve my right hon. Friend’s aim, we will need to build not 10,000 but 90,000 new social homes a year. What measures will he take to ensure that we build the homes that are needed, especially in London—I know that he has condemned the current Mayor of London—so that people are not forced to sleep rough? The human and financial cost of putting those people back on their feet is huge.

Let me again praise the good work that my hon. Friend has done, not least in presenting the Bill that became the Homelessness Reduction Act 2017, which has played such a crucial role in driving some of the results that we are seeing today. He is absolutely right: we must not simply deal with the symptoms, but also tackle the cause. That may include some of the health issues that we have already discussed today, but the fundamental issue for me as Housing Secretary is that we must build more homes of all types in all parts of the country. Last year we built more homes than had been built in any of the last 30 years, but we have now set ourselves the objective of building a million new homes during the current Parliament, and we would like to see house building rise to 300,000 homes a year by the middle of the decade.

These are difficult and challenging targets which will require further Government investment in infrastructure and affordable housing, and we intend to make that investment. They will also require a great many councils to make difficult decisions. If councils really care about the acute housing need in their communities, they will have to use imagination and determination to ensure that the necessary homes are built, and we will be pushing them to do so.

Does the Secretary of State agree that it is a moral scandal that hundreds of homeless people are still dying every year on our streets, without the palliative care that they ought to receive during their last weeks and months? Will he look at the Homelessness (End of Life Care) Bill, which I introduced in the last Parliament? Will he also agree to meet me and the charities that helped me to write the Bill, including Pathway, St Mungo’s, Hospice UK and Shelter, and enable them to use some of the funds that he has announced today—in conjunction with the NHS—to end the scandal of terminally ill homeless people dying without proper care?

The right hon. Gentleman has made a number of important points. It was for those humanitarian reasons, among others, that we chose to use the derogation enabling public money to be spent on compassionate services for non-UK nationals on our streets. We did not feel it was right that those individuals were suffering in silence and we were unable to support them. As I said in my statement, there are serious underlying issues. According to the latest figures that we have, from 2017, about 90% of the people who have died on our streets were suffering from serious mental health conditions, and we need to address those. I shall be happy to meet the right hon. Gentleman.

I welcome the additional funds, but will they be made available to the councils around the country that are working hard to end rough sleeping, including Wolverhampton? May I also invite my right hon. Friend to visit a charity that he knows well, the Good Shepherd Ministry in Wolverhampton, to see the new facilities that have just opened?

I should be delighted to visit Wolverhampton. As I have said before, I volunteered at that charity as a teenager, and it is a fantastic organisation. We will be working to see how we can roll out the funds to provide those 6,000 move-on units across the country, which we will do in various ways: through new properties, through use of the private rented sector, and by refurbishing existing accommodation.

There are numerous good examples in the west midlands. Housing First is being piloted there, and just before Christmas I visited Walsall, not so far from my hon. Friend’s constituency, to see a lady who had moved into good-quality accommodation for the first time in many years after sleeping rough in Walsall. That is exactly the kind of intervention that we want to see throughout the country.

The south-east has the highest rates of homelessness outside London. The Secretary of State has mentioned the provision of beds and the moving-on service, but does he recognise that this issue does not simply relate to those who are sleeping in doorways, although that is bad enough? Every day my team helps families whose members—sometimes pregnant—are often sleeping three or four to one bedroom. When will affordable, suitable accommodation come to Canterbury for them, so that my team no longer has to bid daily for the two or three properties that are currently available?

We are investing more than ever before in affordable housing. Our affordable homes programme is a £9 billion commitment to provide 250,000 affordable homes. We have also made a manifesto commitment that when the programme ends we will replace it with another, which I hope will be bigger and more ambitious and help to make genuinely affordable homes available in more parts of the country, including Canterbury.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s positive statement. Will he join me in paying tribute to the only Conservative-led council in Greater Manchester, which is working to bring an end to rough sleeping in Bolton?

I certainly will. I do not have the figures for Bolton at my fingertips, but Greater Manchester achieved a significant reduction in rough sleeping as a result of good work by councils and funding from the rough sleeping initiative, and we want that to continue. I believe I am going to visit Bolton shortly. I know that my hon. Friend and some of his councillors have been very involved in that initiative, and have been raising money for local charities by sleeping rough.

An estimated two thirds of released prisoners who are homeless go on to reoffend. What steps is the Minister taking with the Ministry of Justice to tackle the problem of people who are released from prison without secure accommodation? Crisis has raised the issue of the criminalisation of homeless people who are rough sleepers. Does the Minister support the repeal of the Vagrancy Act 1824?

We are reviewing the Vagrancy Act, taking into account the differing opinions on the way forward, and will deliver advice on that shortly. We are absolutely focused on the challenge of ensuring that ex-offenders can have safe and secure accommodation and begin to rebuild their life. We are investing in pilots that are being organised by my hon. Friend the Member for Thornbury and Yate (Luke Hall), the homelessness Minister, and we are working closely with the Lord Chancellor, as we did with his predecessors.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s announcement of additional funds and an urgent review. May I also pay tribute to our wonderful local charities and Stoke-on-Trent City Council, which have been doing such tireless work in this regard?

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of seeing a production by a charity called Voices of Stoke, which presented the back stories of people who were sleeping rough and examined their complex needs. It was enormously powerful. I think that we all welcome a knowledge of the complexity of why people end up on the streets. Does my right hon. Friend agree that no solution that might help to end rough sleeping once and for all should be taken off the table?

I certainly do. I hope that my hon. Friend, and other Members in all parts of the House, will recognise not only our determination to tackle the issue but the fact that we are taking a nuanced view of a complex and sophisticated challenge and bringing together all Departments, from health to housing, to address it.

I pay particular tribute to the volunteers, the organisations and the Conservative-led council in Stoke. The city has seen a reduction of more than 50% in the number of rough sleepers over the last year, which is a tremendous achievement, and I hope that my hon. Friend will pass on my thanks to all who have been involved in those efforts.

Rough sleeping has quadrupled in Hull over the last decade, which I think we can all agree is shameful, but does the Secretary of State agree with the statement by St Mungo’s that £1 billion less is being spent on supporting single homeless people than was being spent a decade ago?

We have been taking action through the Homelessness Reduction Act, and there will be important work for us to do as we approach the comprehensive spending review to ensure that councils have the funds that will enable them to continue their own work. We have also ensured that the local housing allowance will no longer be frozen, but will rise in the next financial year in line with the consumer prices index. As I have said repeatedly, the central task for me as Housing Secretary is to build more homes of all types in all parts of the country, and I certainly hope we can work with the council in Hull to deliver that.

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement, and thank him in particular for the £576,000 that has been awarded following a joint bid from Aylesbury Vale and Wycombe District Councils, which cover my constituency along with Chiltern and South Bucks. Does he agree that we need to encourage more councils to work together to tackle homelessness, not least so that they can build the strongest possible partnerships with charities and specialist service providers, which do not necessarily organise according to council boundaries?

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend. There are some fantastic councils across the country, and today’s figures would not have been achieved without them. I pay tribute to them, and encourage them to continue to learn from each other and work with voluntary groups, with charities and, of course, with the Government. If there is anything further that we can do to assist my hon. Friend and his colleagues in Buckinghamshire, we will certainly do it.